The new and wonderful Alternate Reality Game (ARG)

There are volumes on ARGs in Wiki and elsewhere online, and even portions of ARGs are online. In brief, ARGs are a recent creation in which individuals act as players in a game devised to be set at least in part in the real world. That’s a very stripped-down definition, mind, and because of the flexibility the digital and analog worlds can offer, many ARGs, I am sure, may not fit the mould. Not only can ARGs provide fun as gaming, inherent in its treatment of the “real” is a profound philosophical question of how much reality and fiction blurs, and how we may treat reality in an era of rapidly advancing media.

This is an essay I wrote last semester for an English course (Thank god U of T isn’t as hidebound as I thought it to be). Because it was for a course, it was necessary to bring in a central text of the class, Remediation: Understanding New Media by Bolter and Grusin. A copy of this might be floating around Google books. This text really anchored my discussion of ARGs, and also allowed me to spice up the essay with concepts from an intellectual hero of mine, Jean Baudrillard. Terms and such generally get explained as the essay goes along.

In Remediation: Understanding New Media, Bolter and Grusin argue that for centuries, humanity has tried to achieve immediacy in visual representation by inventing techniques to make the viewer unaware that the medium exists (11). From perspective painting to virtual reality, human beings have promised that the newest media surpasses former media in immersing the viewer in the viewed; but, paradoxically this means that to be true to life, additional media are required to convey more information, resulting in hypermediacy. In addition, each new technique is built upon the techniques of existing media. A recent development of this desire for immediacy, expressed through hypermediacy, is the Alternative reality game (ARG). ARGs consist of planned programs in the real world, often tied to a fictitious background story, in which individuals can participate. They push for an immediacy beyond the immersive realism of virtual reality, and it succeeds at this mainly because of its active incorporation and use of other real world media, and correctly assuming that participants in ARGs would use these media in relating to the game, physical space, and to one another.

According to Borland and King, ARGs involve “improvisational theatre, storytelling, and old-fashioned detective work;” Montola categorizes them under “pervasive games,” which are games which do not strictly obey the mutually agreement that a game is set apart from real life, with its own set of rules, times, and spaces (1). An example of an ARG is the promotional campaign for the video game Halo 2. To first involve players in the ARG, individuals were sent jars of honey containing the anagram of “i love bees,” and the URL of “ilovebees.com” was flashed at the end of the Halo2 trailer. On the surface, the website told of a woman’s bee-keeping pass time, but also showed aberrations which was supposed to have been caused by a sentient alien artificial intelligence taking over the website (Borland and King, I Love Bees), such as black pop-up boxes containing dialogue and programming. From there, the game developers, 42 Entertainment, left clues on the website as to the background of this intelligence and even scheduled audio clips to be transmitted over public telephones. Another canonical ARG is The Beast, created to promote the movie A.I. The Beast includes a number of linked websites which form the background for a murder mystery, involving artificial intelligence, which is set in the time frame of the movie. The content of ARGs can differ, but they are characterized by the way in which they use media and media objects without being limited to the world generated by the media itself.

The central phenomenon of Bolter and Grusin’s book, termed “remediation,” is what the authors describe as a “contradictory imperative” of “wanting both to multiply media and to erase all traces of mediation” (Bolter and Grusin 5). The poles of this contradiction are termed immediacy, the urge to transcend media, and hypermediacy, to multiply and accentuate them; of each, Bolter and Grusin seem to bring forward two forms. One kind of hypermediacy is the proliferation of media in physical space, such as computer games, film, and digital art, to name a few of the examples discussed by the authors at length. Another aspect of hypermediacy is that one medium often contains multiple media or borrows techniques from other media. An example of this borrowing that the computer interface takes the form of a “windowed style,” which allows images, text, videos, and other media to be presented adjacent to one another (32-3). Less obviously, immersive displays such as virtual reality and IMAX films build upon the subjective point of view in traditional Hollywood films (Bolter and Grusin 157, 165). It is often these less obvious remediations which carry the authority of being more immediate. From looking at a flat image on a screen to sitting at the centre of a circular dome of screens, to being immersed in a virtual reality world, to perhaps incorporating haptic feedback (252), each new advancements makes improvements upon the display powers of its predecessors. Like hypermediacy, Bolter and Grusin discuss two types of immediacy. One is the sensory immediacy of not noticing the medium, which the authors call the epistemological sense; another is the “psychological” or “emotional” immediacy experienced by viewers when they feel engaged (70). This second type of immediacy operates somewhat independently of sensory immediacy, for an individual could be aware of the media and yet experience psychological involvement.

ARGs operate under both types of immediacy and both types of hypermediacy, and this carries them a step farther than virtual reality. If new media remediates older media in an attempt to improve upon them by offering greater sensory immediacy, an ARG can be seen as improving upon the mediation of existing computer and online games by offering greater sensory immediacy of space and character. A definitive element of the ARG is its self-presentation: “this is not a game” (Jenkins, McGonigal 2). When reading a novel or watching a film, the audience is aware of the media as media, even if they may not keep this fact in mind. Because ARGs take place in the world and involve individuals as themselves, there is potential for developers never to acknowledge that the players are experiencing a game instead of life. This often unspoken agreement between developers and players is an act of psychological immediacy. The ARG is “a modern version of a role-playing game [which] has dispensed with knights and elves and instead asks players to play themselves” (Borland and King).

Bolter and Grusin discusses the mediated self in the third part of their book, and gives the example of being able to change one’s point of view and take others’ point of view in virtual reality as examples of the immediated self (232). First-person shooter games would be another example, where the player adopts the point of view of the character within the game. However, ARGs seem to go a step further by dispensing with the assumption that the player and the character are two separate entities. If one can speak of a player as a character in an ARG, that character is wholly a character at the same time he or she is wholly the player. This recalls Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacrum as being indistinguishable from the original. Even if ARGs may still require players to project themselves into a narrative, they no longer require the player to project themselves into another being. Perhaps the simulacrum, as expressed in ARGs, is the metaphor for immediacy.

Immediacy is arguably the aim of all games. Video and computer games have been naturalized, and so they succeed in “put[ing] viewers into the same space as the object viewed” (Bolter and Grusin 11). Therefore, it is easy to forget that the game is contained within a machine such as the computer or the console, though it is unlikely that players would be so engaged that they fail to distinguish between a computer game and reality. That is, although games offer great psychological immediacy, they are not truly sensorily immediate, and it is up to the players to project themselves into the space of the game. In the ARG, however, the game “bleeds out of living rooms, off the television screen, and into everyday life” (Borland and King). Although ARGs depend heavily on media to spread its content, the world apart from its media is also increasingly acted upon and altered. For example, edoc laundry was based entirely on clothing styles conveying a mystery to be solved, and players could purchase clothing from the Web and participate in the game’s dissemination (Minchew). Another case would be the Year Zero ARG, promoting a Nine Inch Nails album dealing with a dystopian future where liberal expression is harshly punished. Individuals who had signed up on a website of the ARG, located at “artisresistance.com,” were picked up and taken to a band performance, during which SWAT teams stormed the venue (Minchew). This segment of Year Zero also recalls Baudrillard’s example of a staged hold-up (Baudrillard 465-6). Baudrillard’s argument is that the result of a “fake” holdup generates “real” responses, and that isolating the simulation from reality is impossible. In this case, the developers staged an event that made a location in the physical world correspond to the world envisioned by the ARG, and the conflation between the game and the reality is where immediacy arises.

The experience of an attack upon a concert, although staged, is immediate in that each ARG player at the concert experienced the attack firsthand without knowing that it was not “real.” This is an extreme case of immediacy in space; but by Bolter and Grusin’s definition of hypermedia as existing in physical space, using media to propogate and encouraging player use of media would mean that all ARGs include some sort of immediate manipulation of the world as a game essential. Often, the fact that ARGs overlap with the real world produces a mindset of psychological immediacy in the players, and they may even project the game upon the physical world when actual staged correspondences are not present. Jane McGonigal, ARG researcher and developer, gives the example of certain players mistakening a regular employee in a hotel for an actor because they were in the mindset of looking for clues (20). One may say in this case that the ARG, in giving certain levels of sensory immediacy, imparts a psychological immediacy far greater.

Perhaps what makes ARGs a part of reality is their hypermediacy – the way that ARG content embeds itself in an existing network of media and their constant remediation and existing technology. ARGs to date have used the Web as its most frequent locus of information exchange and action. For example, the participants in I Love Bees were first led into the game through the http://www.ilovebees.com website. In the case of I Love Bees and other ARGs, the websites contain a wealth of information about ARG content in multiple media. Bolter and Grusin, writing about the Web, state that the Web is the development that remediates the greatest numbers of other media, such as audio, text, video, and graphics (202-3), and by using the Web, ARG developers manage to take advantage of all of the Web’s previous remediations. ARG developers have also been creative in how they draw upon the array of existing media other than the Web. Putting letters into honey and using fashion as a code for clues are two examples.

There seems to be a difference between the media format that developers intentionally remediate, such as making use of clothing, and a wider net of media in the real world that are not actively programmed into the ARG but which can serve as important aids. This results in a hypermediacy that differs from the objective of previous media evolutions, where space is seen as a nuisance, a distance to be transcended (Bolter and Grusin 11). In the ARG, because the proliferation of media in the real world is assumed, the space of the real world is not necessarily treated as a nuisance but a part of the game. edoc laundry takes advantage of the ambulatory nature of the human body to send its game into physical space, and the way in which I Love Bees plays with space is another poignant example. Players were sent mysterious codes, which they discovered were the GPS coordinates of public payphones and the times that these phones would ring. The developers transmitted audio clips through the telephones, and players had to give passwords or solve puzzles to hear them. Often the passwords had to be conveyed to another player at another location to unlock their own audio clip. Montola argues that this is different from single-player games based on cell phones, since those games do not take into account the physical location of the player (Montola 1). Using the payphones is the more obvious remediation, but the programming the game in a way to force players to interact across vast spaces while not specifying the tools of interaction is a more subtle reflection of a hypermedia attitude, one in which the world is viewed as being full of media to use at one’s choosing.

Unlike previous developments in the strive for immediacy, ARGs do not only seek to improve upon other media, so much as to utilize as many forms of current media without necessarily establishing a definitive and bounded new media for itself. This is important because instead of a new media form taking time to be naturalized, working with ARGs uses the same skills as navigating existing media in the real world, and with this familiarity comes the assurance that the ARG content is as real as any other content in the same medium. For example, links in The Beast lead to “Bangalore World University” and the page of Jeanine Salla, a central character of the narrative. This site includes logs of interviews, personal journals, images and photographs, and audio files; in short, a hypermedia package set to convince the visitor that there truly is a Bangalore World University somewhere, populated by existing people. The Beast
does not only use the Web to deliver its own varied media, but also uses existing content on the Internet. Certain links take visitors to the university’s search page, where players can type in search terms or click on links in the sidebar. Searches are almost the same as regular search engines of Google or Yahoo, and links generate pages such as sunglasses deals and even pop-up advertisements (The Beast). At the basic level, this would be the sort of “windowed style” discussed by Bolter and Grusin, an example of hypermediacy conveying an abundance of information to achieve fullness and a sense of genuineness. On another level, however, these links to outside the ARG content serves to situate the ARG’s own content in the matrix of real content. If visitors are not convinced by the authority of a university website, then the familiar annoyances of pop-up ads and online sales strategies should convince them. The hypermediated nature of its own content, as well as its overlap with existing hypermediate content, serves to assure the player of the ARG’s immediacy.

Nevertheless, the hypermediated nature of ARGs does mean that technologies remediated have been improved upon, and hypermediacy results when creative uses of existing media draw attention to themselves. Writing about I Love Bees, Henry Jenkins regards the audio component of its narrative as akin to the epistolary and serial fiction of previous centuries (Jenkins). Another perspective, intended by the developers, is that the telephone transmission component of I Love Bees remediates Orson Welles’ radio drama for The War of the Worlds, which in 1938 seemed to be broadcasted as a real alien attack (Minchew). In both epistolary fiction and the radio broadcast, the information flow is primarily unidirectional, from the writers to the audience. This may no longer be the case, as I Love Bees forces players to exchange information, give this back to the developers and thus further the ARG. The Beast, likewise, leaked a phone number and callers were sent an email with clues about Jeanine Salla. These examples reveal interaction in one component of the games, but the entire game could be driven by a dialogue between developers and players. With The Beast, developers started by creating what they believed to be three months’ worth of puzzles, which were all quickly solved, forcing the them to create new content. Often the new content was based on information revealed in the players’ online interaction. One can argue that the staple media of the twenty-first century emphasize interaction instead of one-way broadcasting, and remediation in ARGs seem to reflect this emphasis.

Bolter and Grusin’s idea of remediation is that, although hypermediacy and immediacy may seem like opposite strategies, the two actually work in tandem to provide an engaging media experience. I have already mentioned that ARGs do not necessarily try to improve upon all of the media that they remediate. Along with this phenomenon comes a peculiar twist. The ARG succeeds in being psychologically immediate by taking advantage of the imperfect immediacy of existing media. Because media such as the Web or cannot convey unmediated information, users hold a suspension of disbelief. This psychological phenomenon can be viewed as a forerunner and basis for an ARG’s “this is not a game” presentation. Jane McGonigal and Bolter and Grusin all discuss Tom Gunning’s theory regarding the reaction to watching an early silent film called
The Train Arrives
. The audience supposedly ran from the screening in a panic because they were terrified of the approaching train. Gunning believes that it is not because the audience really thought that a train would come off the screen, but that they had temporarily suspended their disbelief, and their fright was rather astonishment that what they knew couldn’t be real did actually look so real (Gunning, qtd. in McGonigal 5, Bolter and Grusin 155). This suspension of disbelief has become a habit in the case of the Web; the ARG takes advantage of this habit to make players assume that its Web content is as existent as other everyday content. This is the case in the online files for The Beast, which seem to feature a real university website and real blogs and interview archives. What results is what McGonigal calls an ARG being integrated into the real lives of the players (4). The ARG’s content being indistinguishable from reality may draw in players, but it is the players’ psychological desire for immediacy and subsequent suspension of disbelief that continues the game.

Bolter and Grusin talk about how, although we have come to be suspicious of photography and is relation to reality (106), we are still fascinated by the monitoring function of the Web to bring us real events (204-7). It seems to be true that while we have been accepting books as media of fiction as well as fact, and have more recently come to accept photography as manipulated, the majority of websites are still based on concrete events or objects in the world. Even fictional narratives online are often posted with the declaration that they are works of fiction, whereas examples of photomanipulation usually do not comment on itself in this way. In remediating different media, ARGs have become a new medium. Just as important, however, is how the ARG has enabled existing media to evolve. As ARGs convey information over the Internet, it is perhaps a seminal force to change our ideas about the Web and its relation to reality. In addition, ARGs can generate new ways of conceptualizing what Bolter and Grusin calls “networks of remediation” (65). “Networks of remediation” refers to the way in which multiple media saturate physical space and, combined together, deliver related content (Bolter and Grusin 67). This seems to be a process of social and economic development (67), but the endless patterns of using current media in ARGs would mean that such networks could be created spontaneously and with creative intent. ARGs create both sensory and psychological immediacy by taking into account physical space and merging player and character, and achieves this through acts of hypermediacy, contextualizing themselves in a network of other media and putting these media to new uses. If all media strive to present the real (Bolter and Grusin 59), then ARGs are another step in the drive towards immediacy, the fascination with hypermedial creativity, and a new way of remediating the real.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006. 453-81.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press, 1999.

Borland, John, and Brad King. “Bees, ARGs, and the Birth of the Collective Detective.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum. Baton Rouge: 85.2 (2008): 21-24. Proquest 5000. 24 Oct 2008.

I Love Bees. 2004. 42 Entertainment. 18 Nov 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. “Chasing Bees, Without the Hive Mind.” Technology Review 3 Dec. 2004. 29 October 2008.

McGonigal, Jane. “‘A Real Little Game’: The Performance of Belief in Pervasive Play.” Digital Games Research Associaton (DiGRA) “Level Up” Conference Proceedings. 1-25. Nov. 2003. Avantgame. 26 Oct. 2008.

Minchew, Brandie. “Report from Austin Game Developers’ Conference 2008: In ARGs We Trust.” Alternate Reality Gaming Network. Oct. 2008. 1 Dec. 2008.

Montola, Markus. “Exploring the Edge of the Magic Circle: Defining Pervasive Games.” DAC 2005 Conference, IT University of Copenhagen. 1-4. 24 Oct 2008.

The Beast. 2001. 42 Entertainment. 27 Nov 2008.

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